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Having Our Backs

Ottawa’s Response to the Covid-19 Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded a host of economic, political and social challenges faced by Albertans; challenges that have required a massive response from governments to support our people and economy. As the crisis’ first tragic anniversary nears, who has really had Albertans’ backs during our time of need?

The default button for some provincial politicians and their allies is to continue to blame Ottawa and federalism generally for Alberta’s woes. The “blame Ottawa” trope, predictable as prairie gophers popping up in spring, was a constant through the UCP’s 2019 campaign, and still finds resonance in complaints about the stabilization program and willful misinterpretations of how equalization works.

Blaming Ottawa has proved a tried and effective instrument over the years for deflecting attention away from how Alberta has been managed – some would say mismanaged – by largely conservative governments over decades. After the election, the UCP’s ship of animus continued full-speed ahead throughout the fall, discharging small separatist vessels along the way. But in early 2020, Alberta hit an iceberg called COVID-19. Suddenly, the ship sprang a leak. 

Some Albertans will always argue that Ottawa – a synonym for Liberals – doesn’t care about the province. But a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows convincingly that, at least in dealing with the pandemic, the federal government has had Alberta’s back; that federalism, for all its real and imagined sins, has worked well.

Written by David Macdonald, “Picking Up the Tab” is based on an exhaustive examination of 849 federal and provincial measures announced up to Dec. 31, 2020. These measures include announced fiscal updates, budgets, economic statements, COVID-19 plans, press releases and other official government communications. The programs examined include direct measures, such as increases in spending or planned decreases in revenue, and infrastructure programs to stimulate growth, health-care expenditures due to COVID-19, business grants, and cash transfers to needing individuals. The report’s conclusion: Alberta has been the big “winner” provincially in terms of federal assistance during this crisis. 

Between the fiscal years 2019-20 and 2021-22, federal government spending is $343 billion, with $24 billion transferred to the provinces. By contrast, the provinces have committed to spending $31 billion. In short, 92 per cent of all spending during the pandemic has been federal.

How much have provinces spent to support their people and businesses? This amount varies, but in the lead is B.C., which has spent almost three per cent of its GDP. By contrast, Alberta’s spending priorities place it near the bottom, tied with Ontario, at only one per cent of GDP.

More starkly, the report shows Albertans are receiving the highest level of per capita spending in Canada – $11,200 a person, of which the federal government pays 93 per cent. Taken together, Alberta receives $1,200 more support, per person, from the federal government than any other province.

The report shows Alberta businesses – often among the most vocal critics of the federal Liberal government – have received the highest level of support: $5,500 for every Albertan, $5,200 of this from federal government programs. But the province’s businesses have also benefitted disproportionately from the federal oil and gas well clean-up fund, meant to create jobs during the pandemic, as well as the emissions reduction fund for the oil and gas sector. Individuals in Alberta have benefitted from federal supports through such programs as CERB and changes to unemployment to the tune of $3,800 per person.

One of the report’s most startling revelations is the Alberta government’s failure to access almost any federal money to top up essential workers’ wages. The top-up was provided to all provinces early on in the pandemic to raise wages for essential workers, though provinces were later allowed to use it to raise wages for low-paid health-care workers. But to access the fund, provincial governments are required to provide funds equivalent to one-third of the federal contribution. Alberta was eligible for $348 million in federal government money for its low-paid essential workers, but only accessed $12 million; a shortfall of $335.8 million that could have been used to assist workers and their families, and to stimulate the province’s struggling economy. This is far and away the highest amount of money left on the table by any provincial government. The government also hasn’t accessed $52 million for long-term care and $55 million for buying hotels to rapidly house people without affordable housing – no fund matching is required for these funds.

One doesn’t have to like the Liberal government – or any federal party in government, for that matter. But the report rebuts the vocalizers of victimhood and their frequent comments that Alberta would be better off going it alone. Confederation has worked pretty well in the current crisis. But while Ottawa has had Albertan’s backs, the same cannot be said about the Alberta government.

 

 

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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